Thursday, 14 March 2013

Walk 36: From rim to rim - the drovers' road from Bulls Cross to Stroud

This is one of those 'grab the sunshine while you can' days - a little sunny blip in an expanse of damp, cold grey.  An intimation of a somewhat delayed spring.  I'm at Bull's Cross,aiming to walk as much of the north-western edge of the valley as feasible, following part of what was once the old drovers' road from Birdlip to Stroud, before the main B4070 was opened in the 18th century. It starts at the top of the ridge in Frith Wood, runs parallel to the brook and clings to the contour for most of its length before diving down into Stroud via Uplands.  That makes it as near to a straight edge as you'll find anywhere in this valley, and my best chance to get a perspective from a higher angle.  Gosh, a walk full of long views rather than close-up detail.  How Will I manage?

Bull's Cross has changed in significant ways since I was last here to walk in Frith Wood.  For one thing, it has acquired a bull.  Also a cow and some calves.  There is a small scrub-clogged triangle of land between the end of Wick Street and the lane which runs to Sheepscombe which I think is owned or managed by Natural England.  It's recently been fenced off and a lot of the scrub shifted and this nuclear herd of cattle introduced to knock it into shape by grazing. This is of course an approved conservation method for encouraging wild flowers and whatnot, so jolly good show, I guess.  It also gives word-obsessed freaks like me great satisfaction.  A bull at Bull's Cross.  Yes!

On a more serious note, Bull's Cross has lost the family who lived here for many months in a caravan.  They were controversially evicted from the scrubby square of land just before the entrance to the GWT reserve - controversially, because in many people's minds they weren't doing any harm.  The ground has now been partly cleared and a new iron bench sits where the caravan used to be.  In a tree by the GWT gate I find a blown hen's egg tied to a scrap of bright red wool, and wonder if it's a last reminder of the former residents.

In Frith Wood, at the dividing of the paths, I take the main and highest track, which is the old road.  We're in that time of year when the birds seem to be taking it in turns to sing; a green woodpecker gives way to a great tit, and somewhere in the background a greater spotted woodpecker is drumming.  The colours of the wood are still the brown and buff of winter, until I veer off the path and come upon a patch of bright green unidentified ground cover and some clumps of short, rather hesitant daffodils.  The ground underfoot is so padded with accumulation of beech leaves that it's like walking on a mattress.  The track, on the other hand, is like trudging through treacle; being a bridle path, it's deep in churned-up mud as usual.

Here's the thing about edges and views: it's almost impossible to predict in advance where you're going to get views from and what you're going to be able to see, even with the aid of a map.  In practice, very small changes in the landscape - the positioning of a tree, a fold in the ground - can make all the difference.  Frith Wood sits high above Slad, but because of the roll of the ground and the depth of the wood, there are almost no views into Slad Valley to be had, except from the bottom edge of the wood.  What you do get are occasional tiny windows - portholes, more like - onto the Painswick Valley.

An outburst of small-bird fussing draws my attention to one of the wood's bigger trees and I spot a small, pretty, brownish-and-white, speckle-spotted bird trotting up and down the tree trunk.  Tree creeper, I think. He's clearly visible against the trunk in my binoculars but manages to become a silhouette against the sky by the time I've got the camera in position.  Ho hum.

Arriving at a quarry throws me into a temporary panic, assuming that I've missed the division of the paths and ended up in the Wrong Trouser (see previous blogs on the trouser-shaped nature of Frith Wood). Frith Wood always has this disorientating effect on me, no matter how hard I try to keep a grip on where I am.  I'm off the path and forging through the wood in an attempt to rectify the situation before it occurs to me that there is more than one quarry along here.  Going off the path is always a good thing, though, because I discover new things, such as a tree studded with tiny green buds, just about to burst into leaf, and several interesting holes.  I tear myself away from these with difficulty: this is supposed to be an Edges walk, not an Interesting Holes walk.  Arriving at a field edge causes a another spasm of navigational uncertainty until I decide, because it slopes uphill, that it must be the Crotch Field (i.e. the one between the two trousers) which is effectively the top of the hill.  Some milk-white cattle eye me dubiously across the boundary.  This may be the top of the hill, but all I can actually see is wood and field.

Not until I reach the edge of the wood and step out into the open can I confirm that I'm where I thought I was - now one of my favourite paths in the valley.  In fact, it's two paths, running parallel for the length of one field, separated by about 6 feet of space, a stone wall and some trees. What the history behind this curious arrangement is, I don't know.  I choose the left-hand path, and a sweeping view begins to open out beside me. It's an unusual, even unfamiliar view of the valley, because it includes the whole upper rim of the top end of the valley, all the way up to the Bisley plain, the part which from lower perspectives is mostly hidden by the woods.  The more familiar parts of the valley are now obscured by the curve  of the hill, which bellies out before it slopes down.  So this is a view from one edge to another edge.  As I walk on, more and more of the northern end of the valley unfolds across my left shoulder.  I can see the houses in the Driftcombe side valley, including Sydenhams, a lovely old medieval house right at its apex, and farm buildings on the very top edge of the eastern slope, none of which are visible from my usual viewpoints lower down.

Northern rim panorama

Now I can just see Down Farm and the racing stables and Down Mound.  I'm used to thinking of these landmarks as high up in the valley, but from here it's obvious how much more valley there is above them.  Perspective is all.  The colours of the valley are all soft beiges and buffs and earths, the still-winter trees like patches of moth-eaten carpet from up here, ice-blue shadows drifting across the whole from pale clouds in a turquoise sky.

This path has good associations for me because I remember walking it one sunny day a few weeks before we actually moved into the valley, looking out across this view and thinking 'Soon this is going to be home'.  That felt good, and still does.

Intriguing bark
At the end of the field, the path I'm on does a dog-leg around a small plantation of beech and birch trees, evidently planted a-purpose because in straight lines.  Amongst them are some intriguing bark patterns so I'm distracted from distance back to detail for a while.  Beyond here is a path off to the left dropping sharply down towards the village and the war memorial, but the continuation of my path goes straight ahead, now a wide farm track with daffodils in the verges and a rough-cut hedge flanking it, from which a chaffinch is serenading me.  For a while, the view of the valley disappears behind a farm barn and I'm walking under a pair of magnificent and multi-trunked trees.

Beyond here, the path dips down and the leafless hedge on my left rises up so that I can only see the opposite hills as a wavering line through an intricate network of twigs. In the middle of the net is a knot, a last-year's nest, in front of a splash of colour which is a glimpse of a white cow and a brown cow in the field next door. How is it, I wonder, that my eyes can apparently focus on the cows, and the net of twigs, at the same time?  When asked to do the same, the camera throws up its hands in horror.  This hedgerow, by the way, is at least six feet deep, and I can hear animal-ish shifting sounds deep in its base.  It could be just a large bird, but it reminds me that hedgerows are said to be important as travel routes for wildlife.  So here am I on a human path walking beside a sort of pedestrian subway for non-humans.

Worgan's Farm looms up on my right hand, a substantial farmhouse and other buildings.  The valley view is lost behind Worgan's Wood, which I last saw in a snowstorm.  Now there are robins singing nearby and the querulous sounds of geese.  The farm stands at the head of Folly Lane, which is what the drovers' road has now become. Beyond the farm and the wood, the road is flanked by a single line of still-leafless trees on both sides, their branches forming a loose cat's-cradle through which the valley view is visible again, now with bright spring-green amongst the buffs and beiges as the sun lights up patches of pasture.  The earlier, unobscured view was breathtaking, but there's also something rather appealing about these partial, half-glimpsed views through winter trees, a sort of bonus feature only available at this season of the year.

Beyond Folly Acres, the trees fall away and with them their secret views.  A whole new view opens out quite dramatically.  I can now see the whole of the southern end of the valley, from Stroud Slad Farm to Parliament Street in Stroud.  And I can also see that quite a lot goes on above the woods which from my normal haunts look like the skyline.  Perspective again - the strata of woods which look so deep and dominant from below become narrow and compressed from up here, and a whole new top layer of fields and farm buildings with a fringe of quite different woods is revealed.  And beyond them, the edge of another valley altogether.

Very prominant in this new view are Baxter's Fields, the three fields below Summer Street on which someone is proposing to build 140 houses.  The developer argues that these fields are part of Stroud.  From up here, they are quite clearly part of the green 'finger' that the Slad Valley becomes as it grows narrower, and into which the grey tentacles of Stroud reach out - tentatively as yet, but this proposal could change that.  If they are built on, Stroud will suddenly be half of this view, not a relatively small part of it.

Slice of valley
My mind's eye is caught by this image of the valley in layers, like a cake.  And what I get when I take photos of this vast view is slices of the cake. There's a particularly good slice in front of me; layers of emerald green fields, black spidery trees at the skyline, purple-buff woods and Stroud Slad Farm sitting like a pale fossil in the middle of the strata, giving it a tiny flash of turquoise where a tarpaulin covers one of the farm roofs. In the foreground is a tall and perfectly-shaped lone tree.  I perch uncomfortably on a stone to draw this slice of valley.

As I continue south, with my chin on my shoulder, more and more of the valley appears behind me.   Swifts Hill becomes increasingly prominent.  Below me on this side, the hill is becoming steeper, so I can now see more of the lower slopes on the far side. I'm approaching Wickridge Farm, and drawing level with the beginning of Summer Street.  There are horses in the fields next to the road, grazing against an incongruous background of houses; the foreground of my view is all countryside, the background all town.

The road begins to slope downhill sharply.  Is the widest view so far? I can now see from the furthest edge of Elcombe all the way to Stroud.  This walk is giving me an entirely different perspective on the valley.  My eye is drawn to different points, focusing on unexpected areas.  Even Swifts Hill looks different, no longer a hill, in fact, but just a promontory from the ridge, with more hills behind.  I'm seeing things I've never noticed before, like a bright yellow castellated house on the skyline opposite.  Where and what is that?

On my right, I'm now passing a patch of woodland which I recently discovered has been bought by a group of local families as a community woodland. A little detour into this wood reveals signs of the new management - new trees planted, fallen trees removed, or turned into groups of stump-stools and plank-benches for picnics and pow-wows. New attractively winding footpaths. Somewhere in the copse a woodpecker is drumming, and as I watch, a buzzard launches himself upward from one of the larger trees.  On the upper edge of the wood is a 'window' onto the valley in which town and country are beautifully blended.  Baxter's Fields are slap in the middle of the view - if they go, it will be mainly a view of town.

Back on the road again, the view just goes on and on.  I'm not sure there's anywhere else in the valley from which you can see Swifts Hill and Summer Street quite so clearly at one and the same time, because lower down, the bend of the valley gets in the way.

Southern rim below Swifts Hill

Then, quite suddenly, the road curves round, the view disappears, the town rises up to meet me, and I'm looking at gardens and backs of houses on the top level of Uplands.  And people are coming up to meet me too - the first I've seen since I left the village - in the shape of a couple of families with kids in multi-coloured wellies, possibly on their way to the community woodland.  Along with the houses there are house sparrows, another thing which tells me I'm in the town; we don't get many sparrows in the valley - I reckon the Great Tits push them out.  But here there is a big community of them, all chi-iking away in the hedge next to me.

I've reached the end of Folly Lane, at its junction with Peghouse Rise, and find myself looking right out of the valley altogether, southwards towards the Severn, a tiny silver thread between blue distant hills.

Peghouse Rise is definitely part of the town, but the country is its backdrop and frontdrop too.  The countryside is very close, looming up just across the valley, the view changing at every corner in the road.  Here, the houses still feel very new, plonked down upon the land, not yet part of it.  It will take a few tens of years before they bed down into the valley like the older settlements.

I've come to the end of my 'edge' walk, but the return walk back along the main road is unexpectedly interesting.  Walking along the road is quite different from travelling along it in the car.  I see things I don't normally notice.  Such as how at this point the fields and the town are like interlocking fingers, evenly balanced.  Such as how attractive Wade's Farmhouse is, with its mellow old stonework (you can't even see it from the car).  Such as the spring that tumbles off the fields below the farm, disappears under the road and becomes one of the tributaries that I recorded when I was walking along the stream.

I've been ignoring the main road up to now, because it's rather an obvious way to travel into the valley and I've been looking for the less obvious.  But it is an integral part of the valley, and, I now discover that if you are on foot, and can ignore the traffic, it is a surprisingly beautiful way to enter the valley.  Suddenly I realise why Uplanders enjoy walking along here to the pub.  As I leave the houses  behind, the road curving away in front of me like my own private balcony, the valley is laid out before my eyes, layer on layer, humps and hollows, fields and woods,  Swifts Hill rearing up before me, pale blue smoke drifting across from a distant bonfire.  This road too is an edge, in its way.

It's been a revelation, this walk, the first time I've walked the length of the drover's road.  I had not realised how different the valley would look from this high angle, how much there was to stretch the eyes.

No comments:

Post a Comment